News Analysis

Why you can’t always rely on papal transcripts


There was a pretty big stink in certain quarters earlier this month over some very selective editing of off-the-cuff remarks Pope Francis made to the students, faculty and staff of the San Carlo Institute of Milan. Here is the essence of what happened.

The April 6 event with San Carlo’s folks was a typically Franciscan Q&A – at least when it came to the Holy Father’s answers. The Pope had the questions and worked from notes in answering them, but did not deliver prepared remarks. In response to the first question – regarding God’s apparent penchant for playing favourites – Francis offered a lengthy disquisition on “differences”.

“We create differences,” Francis said. “I am certain that all of you want peace,” the original transcript (translated) reads. “ ‘And why are there so many wars?’ for example, in Yemen, in Syria, in Afghanistan?”

Francis went on to say: “If they had no weapons, they would not wage war. But why do they wage such a cruel war?” The answer Francis gave – as evidenced from the video – continued: “Because we – rich Europe, America – sell weapons, with which to kill children, with which to kill people. We are the ones who create differences – and you must state this clearly, up front, without fear.”

The places Francis named are excised from the official transcript, which reads instead: “… But why do they wage such a cruel war? Because other countries sell weapons, with which they kill children, people …”

Thus, a specific and explicit indictment of Europe – which may or may not have included Russia (a member of both the Council of Europe and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) – and the United States became a general complaint against countries that trade in weapons of war.

Italian outlets reported Pope Francis’s exact words the same day of the event, but appeared not to have noticed the departures and omissions in the official transcript.

Pope Francis also spoke to another sore subject during the San Carlo session: immigration and the so-called “Nigerian Mafia” in Italy. There was another episode of “censorship” in the official transcript. In response to a teacher’s question regarding how best to convey the core commitments of Christian culture in a manner consistent with the reality of culturally diverse societies, Francis said, “[A]t the beginning you spoke about a multi-ethnic and multicultural society. Let us thank God for this! Let us thank God, because dialogue among cultures, among people, among ethnicities is a richness.”

He went on to say, “[T]oday there is the temptation to build a culture of walls, to raise walls, walls in the heart, walls on the land in order to impede this encounter with other cultures, with other people.”

Francis then delivered his signature line on the subject: “Those who raise a wall, who build a wall, will end up a slave within the walls he has built, without horizons.”

During the course of that response, however, the Pope also got into specifics – apparently more than his official redactors found opportune to release. “Jesus was a migrant,” Pope Francis offered. “People say [migrants] are delinquents. We have our own share of delinquents here as well.

“It was not the Nigerians who invented the mafia,” he added in reference to the influx of Nigerians to Italy.

Portions of the citizenry view this with suspicion, owing to the presence of Nigerian crime syndicates that run, among other things, significant portions of the sex trade in Italy (and have since the 1980s). “It is a national ‘treasure’, the mafia is ours, ‘made in Italy’, it’s ours – and all of us have the possibility of becoming delinquents,” the Pope said.

The entire passage was excised from the official transcript. On the day of the event, Italian-language journalists reported Pope Francis’s ipsissima verba regarding migrants and mafiosi, but did not pick up on the discrepancies.

Not surprisingly, however, other news outlets took note of the changes. Breitbart cottoned on to the changes and reported the story in English on April 8, while the German-language picked up the story on April 10.

Scripta manent, verba volant, the old adage runs. We usually render it: “The written word remains, while spoken words fly away.” The sense of the thing is clear: written – and a fortiori printed – words are fixed fast, and become the official record of what one said, while spoken words are heard if at all, then are lost on the wind.

That was true until the age of audio recording. Now we have audio-visual records, too. Hence the kerfuffle.